Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic Weaves Scholarship with Service

The Boyd School of Law’s clinical studies program consistently rates among the top programs in the nation, due largely to its innovative clinician-scholar model. The founding vision of the Boyd School of Law included a strong clinical studies program, a “law firm within the law school” where providing law students with hands-on experience representing real clients in actual cases and national-level research and understanding of best practices are deployed to enhance and improve legal policy and practice for underserved communities. Unlike many law schools, which staff their clinical programs with staff attorneys, the professors who teach students and supervise cases in Boyd’s Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic are full law school professors with ambitious scholarly agendas that are interwoven with their clinical casework. As a result, students in the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic learn not only good lawyering, but also are immersed in cutting-edge issues of law and policy as a regular part of their clinic work.

Founding faculty member Professor Mary Berkheiser’s work on juvenile waiver of counsel is an example of the marriage between scholarship, public policy, and community service. When Berkheiser established the Juvenile Justice Clinic in 2000, she was disturbed by the alarming rate at which children in the Clark County Juvenile Court waived their constitutional right to counsel, and the paucity of representation for children in delinquency matters. In 2001, the concern about juvenile waiver of counsel motivated Berkheiser to inititate a bipartisan effort with state legislators to strengthen the statutory requirements for juvenile waiver of counsel in Nevada. Berkheiser’s research on the issue, published in a 2002 Florida Law Review article titled The Fiction of Juvenile Right to Counsel: Waiver in the Juvenile Courts, continues to be cited in top law journals. And today, Berkheiser’s Juvenile Justice Clinic students enjoy the opportunity to partner with a vibrant juvenile public defender office that was built up in the wake of the waiver of counsel legislation.

Immigration Clinic professors David Thronson and Leticia Saucedo have brought their unique scholarly interests to the community service and outreach work that clinic students undertake. Thronson’s scholarly work analyzing issues in the intersection of family law and immigration law has influenced both academic discourse and judicial decisions. Saucedo’s groundbreaking scholarship on the brown-collar workforce has drawn on empirical studies of workers in the Las Vegas construction industry. This scholarship informs Immigration Clinic students in the provision of much needed direct client representation, but guides systemic reform efforts such as a human trafficking statute drafted by students and adopted in Nevada to expand protections for workers as trafficking victims.

The newly-established UNLV Innocence Clinic grew directly out of the growing interest of Professor Kate Kruse in the promise of DNA exoneration cases as vehicles for systemic reform, which she explored in a 2006 Wisconsin Law Review article, Instituting Innocence Reform: Wisconsin’s New Governance Experiment. In 2007, when the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center contacted Boyd Law School seeking collaboration on Nevada cases, Kruse was well-positioned to establish a clinic to address the need. In the Innocence Clinic, students learn about the systemic causes of wrongful convictions as they investigate claims of wrongful conviction by Nevada state prisoners. In 2009, Innocence Clinic students worked with state legislators to introduce legislation that expanded a prisoner’s right to petition for postconviction DNA testing and testified in favor of a statute requiring law enforcement agencies to preserve biological evidence collected in crime scene investigations for the length of a prisoner’s sentence.

Dr. Rebecca Nathanson holds a joint appointment in the Schools of Education and Law, and brings her research expertise in child development and child competency to her teaching of law and education students in the interdisciplinary Education Advocacy Clinic. Nathanson’s research focuses on strategies for enhancing the accuracy and credibility of child witnesses’ courtroom testimony. Students in the Education Advocacy Clinic have the opportunity to participate in her innovative Kids’ Court School, a community service project that educates child witnesses in Clark County court cases about the judicial process to help reduce their system-induced stress, while also providing a data set for Dr. Nathanson’s ongoing research in the Department of Educational Psychology.

The Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic expanded its reach this year with the addition of an Appellate Clinic and a Family Justice Clinic, each led by professors whose research interests intersect with their clinical teaching. Professor Anne Traum’s analysis of equitable tolling in habeas cases in a 2009 Maryland Law Review article is already gaining traction in court opinions and filings. She brings her interest and experience in the techniques of persuasive advocacy and the systemic working of federal courts to the law students litigating Ninth Circuit cases in the Appellate Clinic. Professor Ann Cammett’s scholarly work on the collateral consequences of child support enforcement against prison inmates informs the Family Justice Clinic, which explores the role of families in society, the strengths and weaknesses of state intervention into families, and the meaning of access to justice for children and parents.

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